Ayesha Manazir iddiqi: The Centre (Gillian Flynn Books)
Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi’s The Centre is a thriller, a horror story, and a satire, but above all else an investigation of the relationahip of selfhood and language. The horror element comes not from an alien or supernatural source, but from the depths of human nature, with a reference not to technology but to anthropology and human history, myth, and ritual. Siddiqi’s novel occupies the fraught line between fascination and disgust, between the satiric and the gruesome. Siddiqi, like some other writers working in or adjacent to the horror genre, tends to hold the terrifying elements at arm’s length for a large part of the novel, to shift abruptly away from thrilling or shocking possibilities, withholding them until a climactic moment later in the story. This deferral of horror has the effect of highlighting, alongside the shocking elements of the story, the ordinary conflicts, struggles, and terrors of everyday lie.
The novel is strictly from Anisa’s point of view (and at one point there is a sly hint of association between the narrator and the author); that narrative choice emphasizes the core of the novel, the insistence that subjective experience is impossible to communicate transparently—all communication involves a translation that is distorted by the point of view and experience of each party to the conversation. This incommunicability is most obvious in Anisa’s relationships with two friends and a lover. At the heart of the novel, though, is a mysterious process that seeks to break down this barrier to understanding by providing a process of acquiring languages and adopting other people’s experience. The institution that sponsors this process is The Centre of the book’s title.
The story follows three primary arcs. The first is Anisa’s relationship with her friend Naima, who makes a living from tarot readings, tantra, and ayahuasca workshops for women of color. Anisa met Naima when she first moved to London at 18 to attend college, and they are now in their 30s. This part of the story is the most conventional, two friends struggling for love and for a place in the world, a storyline that ends with a wedding (though not the most reassuring of literary weddings). Naima is not only Anisa’s anchor, her best friend and confidant, but their relationship is also, despite Naima’s unconventional way of making a living, the “normal” against which Anisa’s stranger experiences can be measured. The second narrative arc deals with Adam, a man whom she meets at a seminar on literary translation: Adam is the person who introduces her to the Centre, a cult-like language school that claims to achieve for its adherents total fluency in a language in 10 days. The third narrative deals with the Centre itself and with Anisa’s relationship with Shiba, a staff member at the Centre who becomes her guide (her Virgil, even) through the the Centre’s mysteries, possibilities, and even horrors.
Anisa, dissatisfied with settling for a life that falls below her personal and literary ambitions, begins her journey, though, with a tarot reading that Naima does for her (with a comic touch: Naima consults the instruction booklet that came with the pack of cards for her interpreatation): according to Naima (and the instructions that came with the cards) Anisa is ”searching for the reasons for her discontent outside yourself, when the discontent itself is the reason for the discontent.” Thinking about her discontent leads Anisa to consider translation as a profession and an art form, meditating on the difficulties of finding an emotional equivalent for even the most basic elements of language. As evidence she references Harold Bloom’s discussion of the difficulty of adequately translating the famous first line of Camus’s L’Etranger.
She is inspired to attend a seminar on literary translation, where she first encounters Adam, who is also in the audience. She is impressed by his seeming fluency in several languages, and after striking up a conversation with him. When she asks how he has managed to learn so many languages, he offers the stale line that he could tell her but then he’d have to kill her, a line that serves as both a joke and a premonition. Their relationship is tentative at first: he is shy and cautious, particularly about sex, and he is also reticent regarding his skill in learning languages. As she ultimately says, there’s something “off” about Adam, and otherness that provides a lot of the tension in the first half of the story, and is finally explicated in an angry confrontation between what is at that point the former couple, toward the end.
For the first quarter of the novel, the story is a frequently funny rom-com and coming-of-age late story about thirty-somethings in London finding their way through sexual, cultural, friendship, and family stresses—except for the occasional mention of “the horror that was to come.” Anisa navigates her ambitions, her sometimes fractious relationship with Naima, ad her slowly, hesitantly developing relationship with Adam, up to an including the adoption of a cat together (a big step, after all, toward shared domesticity). The break in the narrative occurs when a Anisa and Adam travel to introduce him to her family in Pakistan. Cultural and sexual tensions arise, from multiple misunderstandings based in incommensurable personal experience of a man and a woman from opposite ends of the colonial history of t heir countries. The biggest shock to their relationship comes when Adam reveals that he has learned Urdu, as a sort of gift to Anisa, but her reaction is not what he expects (not the least of which is that he now speaks the language better than she does, a fact that her family remarks upon). This insistence on the linguistic and translational aspects of disconnections between individuals with differing bodily experience of life prepares for both the couple’s breakup and the more startling aspects of the tale in the chapters to come.
After Adam provides Anisa with a referral to The Centre (something that p[articipants are only eligible to do once in a lifetime), almost as a parting gift upon their breakup, she undergoes an odd interview and an even stranger physical exam, and then journeys to the remote facility. The building is half 18th-century mansion and half modern glass and steel, the two sections surrounding a central courtyard and garden. The two halves of the building suggest the two tendencies of the story: toward gothic mystery and speculative fiction (both, though, grounded more in anthropology than in the supernatural or the technological).
The central garden: It seems perpetually lush and green, regardless of the season, but more pointedly, there is in the center of the garden a fenced-off section of poisonous plants. Their role in the Centre’s activity is never specified, so they function as a menacing presence and, by the end, a suggestion that there is more going on than the narrator is revealing. The poisonous presence are also a first hint of Anisa’s growing suspicions abut what is going on in the facility.
At first, though, the program of The Centre is almost monastic. The regimen involves, first, the confiscation of all communication devices, then a strict schedule of meditation, meals, silence (except for occasional contact with staff), and long hours of sitting in a booth listening to a “Storyteller” drone on and on in a language that the learner does not (yet) understand. Anisa’s first crises are, on the one hand, boredom (despite the excellence of the meals prepared by the on-site chefs), and the forced withdrawal from Whatsapp and social media. At one point, she breaks down in her cell-like room and is comforted by an elderly cleaner (with whom she is not supposed to interact) who convinces her to go back to her language booth. Her other, sanctioned, interactions are only with Shiba, who encourages her but also echoes her life experience as a South Asian émigré. Their bond grows to fill ghe gap left by Anisa’s growing distance from Naima (who has become engaged to a man that Anisa does not approve of) and by Shiba’s isolation as the chief of staff (she is not only in charge but is the daughter of one of the founders).
Their friendship softens the cult-like atmosphere and the, suddently, Anisa begins to understand Peter, Her German Storyteller, as he drones on and on in her headphones, telling his life story in intimate detail. Her new facility in Germanm though, also has a darker side: she realizes that her recent, disturbing nightmares seem to be based on Peter’s story, even though she was having the nightmares before she could understand him.
After “graduating” from The Centre, Anisa seeks to fulfill her professional ambitions, selecting a German literary novel (which is an allegory about language and translation) and publishes a successful English version of the text. Her feeling of success is mixed with her sense of inadequacy, which she identifies as the imposter syndrome, and sheh reaches out to Shiba. They meet and bond further, and then Anisa decides to go back to The Centre to learn Ruissian. On her second visit, the institution’s linguistic labyrinth darkens. She learns that her new Storyteller is in fact the elderly cleaner kthat she encountered on her first visit, but she is told that she will not be able to meet her this time, since the old woman is ill and in hospital. A further crisis comes when Shiba invites Anisa to visit her in the private quatters that are forbidden to leaners, and in a moment when Shiba is occupied and her laptop is open, Anisa further violates the ru les by checking her email. Whe follows is a thriller-like sequence of panic ,fear, and flight, ending abruptly when she attempts to enter another forbidden area: whereupon the narrator and the hnarrative go black. The secret behind the door will not be revealed until much later (following the pattern of the novel’s thriller and horror elements: at each stage, the narrative pulls back, postponing the full effect as the normal (though still ominous) life at The Centre and beyond resumes.
The resto fthe story follows Anisa’s success as a translator, and a second trip to South Asia, this time in the company of Shiba, to visit with Shiba’s father and the other founders, who are coming together, from their various institutions around the world, to conduct The Centre’s essential business and the plans for its future. The visit is initially amicable, but rapidly falls apart in two ways: The final revelation of The Centre’s secrets in their full horror become clear, but Anisa’s final break with Shiba, her father, and the intstitution stem from a more banal, but in a way even more horrifying and disgusting, incident.
Anisa’s flight from India and from Shiba’s famiy does not quite resolve her relation to The Centre and its horrors. A further revelation, in a conversation with Shiba during the novel’s final weddiing scenes, both turns the screw further andn threatens to inveigle Anisa again in the web of The Centre, despite her awareness of its dark heart.
As horror fiction, The Centre has much in common with other historical and contemporary horror novels that are grounded in cults and human history (rather than supernatural or alien forces). I kept thinking of Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones, whose horror derives from essential and powerful cultural misunderstandings and colonial domination of one culture over another. The Centre is full of the same criticism of colonial domination, but usually in a lighter and more satirical tone, but like Jay’s famous novel, its horror is rooted in anthropology and history. Among more recent novels, Siddiqi’s book has in common with Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House a focus on cult-like enclaves and on female experience of the world. The Centre also has themes in common with Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, though without that story’s supernatural and historical elements. And John Darnielle’s invocation of the disruption of ordinary means of communication and the eruption of terrifying possibilities into ordinary (if unsatisfying) lives in his Universal Harvester has parallels in Siddiqi’s contrast between the ordinary conflicts and the awful potentialities of human nature.
What distinguishes The Centre from these books is partly tone: there is a lightness in Siddiqi’s evocation of the social lives of thirty-something Londoners of varying backgrounds that both contrasts and hightlights the anger and misunderstanding, both cultural and personal, among her characters. Much of the narrative’s tension is based not on exceptional circumstances but on ordinary life, not on the horror underneath but on the banality on the surface of the characters’ lives. In Anisa’s heated arguments with Adam, Naima, and Shiba, what is revealed is the incommensurability of individual experience: our inner lives, and basic points of view, and. Untranslatable across the gap between us. Anisa and the founders of The Centre are, each in their own way and each with their own moral dilemmas and lapses, trying to overcome that barrier. The question is whether total understanding across the barrier between us, a kind of telepathic communication, would result in horror and conflict or peace and understanding. Would sharing another person’s consciousness lead to empathy or nightmares. Rather than the style of horror that mines anxiety and shock as emotional forces,